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From Sun Gazette:

One in two children ages 4 and under in Lycoming County belong to a low-income family, and according to PA Partnerships for Children, children living in poverty are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition and chronic health problems and to be less prepared for school, leading to academic struggles down the road.

The partnership's 2010 School Readiness report, which studied all of Pennsylvania, showed that more young children than ever are living in low-income families this year. That is just one of several factors studied in the report, which concluded that Pennsylvania is losing ground in six areas that have a huge effect on a young child's education.

"Living in poverty, having a parent or parents who don't speak English in the home, hunger, abuse and neglect - all can have dramatic effects on a child's ability not only to do well in school, but to attend school consistently," said Kathy Geller Myers, PA Partnerships for Children spokeswoman. "Safety and stability in a child's home life play a huge role in educational success."

The percentage of young children lacking health insurance increased this year, both across the state and in Lycoming County.

In Pennsylvania, 4.6 percent of children ages 4 and under are uninsured; in Lycoming County, that number climbs to 5.3 percent of children 4 and under. Lack of health insurance for young children can cause delays in the diagnosis of chronic or acute health conditions, and delays in treatment can affect a child's development on several levels. Children who lack health insurance also are more likely to miss school and less likely to achieve academically.

Myers said these numbers are probably a reflection of the country's financial situation: "The growth in uninsured children could be the result of lingering hard economic times if a parent got laid off and lost a job and lost access to his company's health plan that provided insurance coverage for the family. Certainly unemployment causes a loss of benefits."

Hard economic times also have led to state budget cuts in early childhood education over the past two years, which Myers said impacts school districts and the offerings they are able to provide young children.

"Like the Commonwealth, school districts struggled to put together their budgets. Districts have been doing their best to make responsible cuts without doing real damage to the educational opportunities offered to students," Myers said. "But with the cuts and layoffs that were approved this year, everyone should be concerned about the kinds of choices school administrators and school board members could be forced with next year. The $200 million state increase for basic education was significant for districts to keep moving forward, but it was not enough to close the local revenue gaps. And next year stimulus funding will not be available, so school districts will have some tough conversations and some tough decisions to make."

Those tough decisions could affect local and statewide pre-K offerings for children. Pennsylvania's offerings of pre-K programs held steady this year, with 17.6 percent of children ages 3 and 4 enrolled in publicly funded pre-K, but Lycoming County's numbers dropped from 20.7 to 19.3 percent. This year, the county offers four pre-K programs, at East Lycoming School District, Jersey Shore Area School District, Lycoming-Clinton Counties Commission for Community Action (STEP) Inc. and Montgomery Area School District.

The Montgomery program, established three years ago, offers 50 state-funded slots for students. Karen Snyder, Montgomery Elementary School principal, said nine additional students were accepted into the program this year and are being paid for by local funds.

"It's been a wonderful, wonderful program," said Snyder, adding that students' baseline scores on assessment tests upon entering school have improved since the establishment of the pre-K program.

East Lycoming School District has offered pre-K in various forms for about 10 years, and has had the Pre-K Counts program since 2007. This year's program has 50 students and still can accept 10 more, according to Patti Wylie, literacy coach for the district, who said the program has been a great asset for young children.

"We are so pleased with what's going on," she said. "When students are coming to kindergarten, they're comfortable with our school, they're comfortable with the routines, and academically they are excelling."

Myers said pre-K offers several advantages for young children.

"High-quality pre-K helps improve the school readiness of young children by enhancing their social, emotional and cognitive development. Children who attend high-quality pre-K enter school more prepared and achieve greater success, including fewer grade retentions, less special education placement and higher standardized test scores," she said. "For a child at risk of education failure, having access to high-quality early education can help create the foundation for education success."

One area in which Lycoming County excels is in its full-day kindergarten offerings. While only 68 percent of kindergarteners across the state have access to full-day kindergarten, 98 to 100 percent of kindergarten students in Lycoming County districts attend full-day programs. Myers said students who attend full-day kindergarten have been shown to make a more successful transition to first grade and to earn higher scores on tests and on their report cards.

While many of the factors affecting a child's success in education are controlled by outside forces, there still are plenty of ways parents can work to increase their child's chance of success in school.

"A parent is a child's best and first teacher," Myers said. "Parents can do a lot to facilitate and encourage a child's school readiness through reading at home and engaging in everyday activities that are fun but also opportunities to learn for a young child."

Myers also stressed the importance of advocating for early childhood education funding: "We need to increase investments and ensure that every child has the opportunity to enter school ready to learn, ready to thrive."

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